At 88 years old, John Paul has made Prince Rupert’s badminton courts his stomping grounds for the better part of 30 years.
Despite the fact that he has had both his knees replaced due to the wear and tear of a lifetime of racket sports, Paul doesn’t see himself stopping or slowing down anytime soon.
“I like it, and it keeps me in shape,” Paul said. “I’ll play for as long as I can.”
Paul was born in New Westminster in 1929. When he was 10 years old his father, a railroad worker, moved his family to Prince Rupert after accepting a job at the railway in the city.
New to the city, Paul picked up badminton when some of his friends were playing at the old Civic Centre. He said Prince Rupert was a very different place in the 1940s, when the Second World War was still in full swing and the city was booming.
“There were a lot of American and Canadian troops here,” Paul said. “Lots of businesses were going downtown.”
Paul said with the lack of entertainment — there were no televisions or malls — he and his group would play badminton and other racket sports, such as squash and tennis, to keep themselves occupied.
Of all the sports he played, Paul said he preferred tennis the most.
“With tennis, it feels like you’re actually hitting something,” he said.
As he progressed through his teens, however, life circumstances took Paul away from the game.
He quit school in Grade 9 to take care of his grandfather who was sick in the Lower Mainland. When he returned to Prince Rupert approximately six years later, Paul began a career on the railroads, working his way up to being a freight operator.
It was a job he would keep for the next three decades.
“My career kept me from playing,” he said. “We were out of town quite a bit, and I never got a chance to play badminton at that time.”
Paul said working every day on the Skeena was an even more dangerous proposition than it can be today. In addition to the extremes in weather, he said the safety standards and materials used on the rail were not the same as they are today.
“They used lighter steel in the 40s and 50s that could kink in the summer heat,” he said.
Paul said he also saw his fair share of avalanches and rock-slides, though he was fortunate enough to never have been caught in one.
“We were the ones who always had to clean them up,” he said.
After 35 years working on the rails, Paul retired, dusted off his badminton racket and returned to the courts he’d fallen in love with as a young man.
Now in his mid-50s, Paul found new partners, and a core group he has continued to play with ever since.
To this day, the same familiar cast of characters gathers at the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre to play badminton every day at noon.
Anywhere from four to 15 players in number, they greet each other warmly, set up a net, and before long, are casually hitting a birdie back and forth. Their game of choice is doubles, which is easier on the joints.
Eventually, the real games start, starting with low intensity before the energy picks up and the games get more intense. Before long, the gym echoes with sounds of heavy footsteps and grunts as the players lunge to hit their shots.
While the players vary in skill level, the grizzled figure of Paul, the elder statesman, stands out. Paul is noticeable not only because of his deft touch with a racket and efficient movements around the court, but also because of his age.
“Of course they’re all younger than I am,” Paul said. “But we still have some pretty good games.”
Paul claims that his game hasn’t changed much since his younger days, with the possible exception of how hard he can smash. Over the years, he has developed a deadly drop shot, which he can deliver from anywhere on the court at any time. Such shots often leave opponents diving to the ground to recover.
Paul said he plans deliver those drop shots for years to come, in the city that will always be home.
“Once you come to Rupert, you never leave,” he said with a laugh. “That’s what happened to me.
“I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else.”